scientific consensus

World Homeopathy Awareness Week – Raising Awareness that Homeopathy is Bulldust!

Well, this week is rather special – it’s World Homeopathy Awareness Week!

First, a very brief primer on homeopathy. Homeopathy was founded in 1796 by Samuel Hahnemann, based on his postulation that “like cures like” – for example, a small amount of a stimulant, such as caffeine, is purported to help with sleep troubles. Homeopathic preparations are produced by “dynamisation” or “potentisation”, in which active ingredients are diluted with alcohol or distilled water, then “succussed” (a form of ritualistic vigorous shaking). The dilution process is repeated until the likelihood of a single molecule of the original ingredient being present in a bottle of homeopathic “remedy” is as close as can be to zero.

Homeopathic remedies are sold as liquids or sugar pills and can be found in health food stores, online shops and to my great disappointment, in pharmacies in Australia. Homeopathy is at times confused with herbalism, as it is included within the scope of “natural medicine”, thus it is worth noting that while herbal remedies contain active ingredients, homeopathic remedies contain no detectable trace of such. For more information, visit the 10:23 Campaign’s page, “What is Homeopathy?” 

 

Beginning on the 10th of April each year,coinciding with the birthday of Hahnemann, World Homeopathy Awareness Week (WHAW) has been established by the World Homeopathy Awareness Organization to coordinate global promotion of homeopathy by those who practice and advocate it. Simultaneously, WHAW has been embraced by critics of homeopathy as a fine time to raise awareness of the lack of plausibility behind the mechanisms used to create homeopathic “remedies”, and the lack of evidence that homeopathy has any physiological effect beyond that of a placebo.

This year, WHAW related discussion kicked off a couple of days early, as Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council released a draft of their information paper, “Evidence on the effectiveness of homeopathy for treating health conditions“. The NHMRC is accepting feedback on this paper until May 26th, so if you wish to provide them with any feedback for consideration, details on doing so are available via the above link.

Admittedly, when I first heard that the NHMRC were conducting a review on homeopathy studies, I was flummoxed – I was familiar with the findings on homeopathy already, and it seemed akin to reviewing findings on whether the sky was blue, or whether water was… wet. However, more public awareness on homeopathy – and the findings that no credible evidence supports its efficacy – has been a great prompt for the media to get on board and for public discussion of homeopathy to increase.

In short, people are still investing their money and hope in products and treatments which have no plausible mechanism of action beyond a placebo. Pharmacies are still selling homeopathic products, in what I consider to be a terribly unethical case of lending false credibility. A small but important minority of general practitioners are referring their patients to homeopaths and naturopaths (some of whom include homeopathy in their practice). There are people who, heart-breakingly, eschew evidence based medicine in favour of homeopathy – as was seen in the tragic case of Penelope Dingle. As such, I believe that it is worth getting the word out, loud and clear, that homeopathy is a sham.

 

I’ve spotted a few fantastic reads during WHAW this year. First up, Ken Harvey has written a piece on The Drum titled “Homeopathy – We Can’t Have it Both Ways“, in which he discusses the fact that, while the NHMRC paper condemns homeopathy, other authorities still give it legitimacy, by accrediting the study of homeopathy, including it in health insurance plans and allowing it to be sold in pharmacies.

From the Good Thinking Society, here is a wonderful page on Homeopathy Awareness Week, with a list of twelve quick facts on homeopathy. The project director, Michael Marshall, explains the importance of the site and of awareness of homeopathy in his Guardian piece, “Homeopathy Awareness Can Make The World A Happier and Healthier Place“.

This week’s episode of The Skeptic Zone Podcast (permalink) has more information on homeopathy than molecules of active ingredients in a homeopathic dilution, and includes my first attempt at a podcast report (replete with awful jokes, such as the one I’ve just made), in which I cover a minor skeptical activism success on the Better Health Channel’s promotion of WHAW. After an impromptu letter writing and social media campaign last week, and in light of the NHMRC draft report on homeopathy, the Better Health Channel made the commendable decision to remove WHAW from their events calendar. If you’re not already a regular Skeptic Zone listener, I encourage you to give it a go this week – despite my cheesy lines, the show is great.

Speaking of humour, I’d like to provide two more links on which to end this post. They’re not to be taken seriously, but sometimes laughter is… the best medicine. (Sorry – I’ll see myself out).

How Does Homeopathy Work? (from the 10:23 Campaign)

List of scientifically controlled double blind studies which have conclusively demonstrated the efficacy of homeopathy (from RationalWiki)

10:23 Campaign Against Homeopathy – Antarctic 2011 (a short video via The Skeptic Zone, in which Dr Paul Willis puts himself on the line and takes a homeopathic overdose!)

2009-11-02-homeoComic by Luke Surl, shared under Creative Commons Licence

Advertisements

Defending the Lion; The Vulnerability of Truth

“The truth is like a lion. You don’t have to defend it. Let it loose. It will defend itself.”

The above quote, attributed to St Augustine, has been doing the rounds as an inspirational meme for some time. Occasionally it will pop up on one of my social media streams, posted by somebody who I assume has faith that fact will prevail in the face of falsehood. And of course, I certainly hope that it will – but I disagree strongly with St Augustine’s sentiment. Based on my observations, I believe that the lion of this metaphor is vulnerable and that we do need to fight to defend it.

Ethical truths, which are highly subjective (and as such, it is highly debatable whether they are indeed truths at all), do not defend themselves – if they did, surely I would not be repulsed by honour killings, as those who commit them are behaving in a manner according to the ethical truth with which I find indefensible, that bringing dishonour to one’s family is a greater crime than murdering them. We would not have an anti-abortion/pro-choice debate, nor a euthanasia debate, nor disagreements regarding the death penalty. If ethical truths could defend themselves, should they not convince us all of their merit?

Likewise, logical truths are not agreed upon by all – be it through a lack of exploration or exposure to concepts, alternate well-argued conclusions or cognitive dissonance.

The clearest of all truths though, factual truths backed by solid evidence, are still vulnerable to falsehoods – some of which when taken as truth present real risks to our society.

The truth that vaccination is the safest and most effective means by which we can protect ourselves from vaccine preventable diseases (and that these diseases are a real threat to human health and life) is continually under attack from anti-vaccination advocates – and to some in our community, the anti-vaxxers can be persuasive, resulting in both danger to individuals’ health and lowered herd immunity in our communities. As such, I find it imperative that vaccination advocates defend the truth; and I am honoured to know many people who spend a lot of their time and energy doing just that.

Likewise, fluoridation of our water supply is a safe way to ensure that our population’s dental health is maintained, but anti-fluoridation activists believe differently. Not only are these activists able to convince individuals with their rhetoric, they can also influence policy to the extent that entire regions remove fluoride from their water supply as a result of their campaigning. In this case, to maintain evidence-based public health policy, we must defend the truth.

The truths that fringe conspiracy theorists deny – that the moon landing occurred, that chemtrails are merely contrails, that the reptilians or Illuminati are unlikely to be controlling the world behind the scenes – arguably cause far less harm to communities and relatively little to the individuals who believe them (this moon landing hoaxer aside), but they do serve as examples of situations in which the truth is not defending itself. I’m inclined to spend less time defending these truths, though I do tend to take issue with the conspiracy theorists’ undermining of rational evidence-based thinking.

lion of truth

It is probable that St Augustine was referring to the biblical truth in which he believed – that the truth of his god would prevail without his defense. Clearly at this point in human history it has not, given the wide array of beliefs and lack thereof held by the people of this planet. His biblical truth is not defending itself.

We humans are capable of manipulating our world, both with concepts and with actions. Both metaphorically and in reality, we have rendered the lion vulnerable; and it relies our protection if it is to prevail. The benefits of defending the lion and whether we have a moral imperative to do so are truths to be explored.

Ethically, logically and factually, St Augustine’s truth, that truth can defend itself, does not hold true for me.

Mummy Instinct

Well. I have been incredibly busy catching up with uni work after taking a break over the holiday season and have not been able to find the time to write a blog post for a couple of weeks now. As I don’t like to go for too long without putting something up here, have this:

mummyinstinct01

I feel very fortunate that my “mummy instinct” is to understand the importance of evidence and reason when making decisions regarding my children’s health and wellbeing.

Please feel free to share this image if you find it entertaining or pertinent to a discussion that you’re having.

Image created using Success Kid template on quickmeme.com.

 

Further Reading:

Parenting and the False Dichotomy Between Nature and Technology

Parenting and the False Dichotomy Between Nature and Technology

NB: The quote is actually from ‘Christiane Northrup MD’, more about her in ‘Further Reading’. The Facebook page I saw the above image on was not the one mentioned in the bottom left hand corner.

A couple of months ago, I happened upon this quote posted by a breastfeeding support and advocacy page on Facebook. As a new mother, I visited many such pages while I navigated my way through learning to breastfeed, alongside other pages and communities relating to various aspects of parenting infants.

The text in the above image demonstrates an ideology that I see expressed often in the realm of online parenting information; the simplistic appeal to nature and subsequent derision of technology.

I’ll quickly state that I do not dispute that breast milk is an ideal food for babies*. I’m not quite willing to call this part of the quote out as being a straw man argument, but it is very rare in my experience to see the claim made that formula is as good as breast milk. As such, I’m not quite sure who or what the quote is intended to be in response to. Perhaps this would be more evident if the quote was not taken out of context, but for the purposes of this article, I think it appropriate to leave it as the short excerpt that has been used to create this meme.

What I wish to focus on in this post is the notion suggested in the second part of the last sentence. On reading it, my immediate response is to declare that yes, sometimes relatively new human innovations are superior to the products of several million years of evolution.

The poliomyelitis virus is the product of three million years of evolution. Relative newcomers, the range of polio vaccines that have been developed over the past fifty years have fortunately proven to be superior to the poliomyelitis virus. As a result, we are now on the verge of eradicating polio.

Snakes are evolutionary success stories and populate every continent aside from Antarctica. The administration of antivenom, a medical technology, allows us a greater chance at surviving their bites.

Some of the high risk events associated with childbirth – uterine rupture, cord accidents and other complications with delivery, post partum haemorrhage – are natural. Modern obstetric medicine with its comparatively new technologies is able to intervene when required and save the lives of both infants and their mothers.

In some developing nations, a varied diet is unaffordable and people rely on easy to grow rice to make up the larger part of their sustenance. To help combat morbidity and mortality caused by nutrient deficiencies, the humanitarian Golden Rice Project have created a genetically modified variety of rice which accumulates bioavailable beta carotine in its grains. Golden Rice is still in the development phase, the eventual goal is to distribute seed to farmers free of royalties, which they will be able to grow as they do traditional rice varieties, saving and replanting seed.

I hope the above examples not only illustrate that those things which are considered to be natural are not always the safest or most beneficial for us, but in the case of the latter two, that the natural can work in conjunction with technology to offer optimal outcomes.

My concern with separating out that which is considered ‘natural’ and that which is considered to be a product or tool of technology is the risk that we turn our backs on the safest or most beneficial choices in order to maintain an idealisation of the natural that is not always reasonable. The appeal to nature argument is used to sell many products and ideas, from harmless natural baby toiletries and foods to dangerous concepts such as rejecting vaccination and using homeopathic treatments in lieu of seeking legitimate medical care.

Automatically equating ‘natural’ with ‘safe’ is a presumption we must be mindful of. Likewise, whether we consider a concept or product to be natural should hopefully be of less relevance than whether it is the safest and most effective option.

I would like to suggest an alternative means by which we can claim our power as women (or, indeed, as parents and human beings in general). We can equip ourselves with a greater range of useful tools in our lives if we assess individual concepts and products on their own merit, rather than pigeonholing them as natural or otherwise. If we reject the notion that nature and technology are diametrically opposing notions, we can embrace both and make use of all available resources to facilitate the best possible wellbeing for ourselves and our loved ones.

Further Reading:

Christiane Northrup, MD: Science Tainted with Strange Beliefs – by Harriet Hall MD on Science Based Medicine

An Open Letter to My Fellow “Natural Parents” – by Madonna Behen on Redbook

The Golden Rice Project

* I don’t think that I am able to make this post citing such a highly emotive example without making a short statement on my position on the breastfeeding/formula feeding issue. As somebody who wanted to breastfeed my kids, I have been fortunate and tenacious enough to have succeeded – my son self-weaned at seventeen months and my daughter is still at it at the time of posting. The accepted consensus is that breast is best; I’m down with that and happily support any woman who wishes to breastfeed their child. However, if a woman chooses to formula feed, it’s her business, just as choosing to breastfeed is mine. If a woman is unable to breastfeed and wished to, I acknowledge her efforts, am sorry that things didn’t work out as she’d wanted and hope that she is feeling okay.

It is possible to advocate breastfeeding without being critical of those who formula feed. I’ve seen some awful attempts to guilt-trip women who formula feed and I do not understand what these critics are trying to accomplish. There’s no shortage of pro-breastfeeding information out there, it is unlikely that a woman who is already formula feeding their baby needs educating about the advantages of breast milk, nor is it common for women to attempt to re-induce lactation. I would ask those who make negative statements about formula feeding to question how constructive they are being. Which is of more use, a shamed, ostracised or hostile mother or a mother who feels supported and not judged?

Additionally, I acknowledge that a baby’s nourishment can be almost all-encompassing during their first year of life, but within the context of an entire childhood, it is a relatively small factor compared with whether the child is loved, supported, able to develop and express their identity and safe.

Five responses to claims made by the Australian (anti-)Vaccination Network.

I would like to briefly address some assertions that I have witnessed being made by the Australian (anti-)Vaccination Network (AVN). The following five quotes are representative of recurring claims.

"Because every issue has two sides"

1) “Every issue has two sides” (from the banner at the top of the AVN’s website, above)

Indeed – and some sides are just plain bulldust!

In the case of whether vaccination is safe, effective and our best chance at protecting ourselves from vaccine preventable diseases, on one side is scientific consensus, the educated opinion of the medical fraternity, public health policy and the majority of informed laypeople. On the other are a few rogue scientists, conspiracy theorists, misled and misinformed individuals and charlatans.

Insisting that anti-vaccination spokespeople be heard whenever the subject of vaccination comes up is demanding false balance. It is equivalent to ensuring that a flat-earther be invited to speak at a geography conference or teaching intelligent design in science classes. The scientific consensus is in and it has been in for a long time. Any controversy regarding whether vaccination is the safest and most effective method of preventing vaccine preventable diseases is being manufactured from an ill informed and non-evidence based position.

2) “We are not anti-vaccination – we are about choice” (‘Doctors unite to smash the anti-vaccine group‘, The Daily Telegraph, 22 July 2012)

…just as long as that choice is to refuse vaccination.

I have looked long and hard, as have others, and have been unable find one example on the AVN’s website of a situation in which the AVN would find vaccination to be an acceptable proposition. The AVN sells a t-shirt in their online store which reads “Love them. Protect them. Never inject them.”

A Titan Arum by any other name would smell as rank, the AVN are anti-vaccination.

I presume that the AVN’s insistence that they are pro-choice is a PR exercise. I would like to know precisely why they wish to distance themselves from the movement that they are a part of.

I suspect that their decision to label themselves ‘pro-choice’ instead was to help cultivate a desired image of the AVN as oppressed freedom fighters. I feel that Meryl Dorey’s Twitter account “nocompulsoryvac” and blog posting handle “nocompulsoryvaccination” support my hypothesis.

As such, I would like point out that there is no threat to peoples’ right to refuse vaccination for themselves or their children in Australia. Parents may choose to forfeit a financial incentive or government benefit when they refuse to vaccinate their children. In some instances adults may need to choose a career which doesn’t require them to be vaccinated for the safety of themselves and others. However, Australian health policy does not enforce compulsory or mandatory vaccination and I know of very few people who feel that it should.

3) “Vaccination is neither 100% safe nor 100% effective and parents need to be fully informed before making a decision for their children.” (‘Public Health Unit Turns Down the Offer to Speak at Vaccination Seminar | Vactruth.com‘ AVN blog post (comments), 16 June 2012)

I concur, let’s have a biscuit!

I have never heard anybody make the claim that vaccination is either 100% safe or 100% effective. When weighing up the risks associated with vaccination against the risks in not vaccinating, vaccination is inarguably the much safer option. Likewise, the efficacy of vaccination in preventing vaccine preventable diseases (or ensuring a much milder case of the illness is contracted in some cases when exposure occurs) is incomparable against the non-existent preventative powers of not vaccinating at all.

I agree that parents should be making an informed decision when considering vaccinating their children. However, that information should be correct and come from a credible source, such as their GP or the Immunisation Handbook, rather than shonky misinformation websites such as that of the AVN, whale.to or naturalnews.com.

4) “How many children are we willing to sacrifice before the altar of vaccination in order to ‘protect’ society?” (‘Can children be considered collateral damage‘, AVN blog post, 24 March 2011)

None. No light-hearted opening line for this one.

I assert that the suggestion of ‘sacrifice’ is an inaccurate and unreasonable appeal to emotion. Any harm caused by vaccination is a tragedy and those involved in the development of vaccines work
tirelessly to improve the safety of vaccines in order to bring them as close as they can possibly be to being 100% safe.

While the majority of adverse reactions to the whole cell pertussis component of Triple Antigen were mild and had no long term effects (these included fever, irritability, persistent crying and local site reaction), immunologists worked to produce an acellular pertussis vaccine which has been associated with far fewer reactions. Likewise, the incredibly rare occurrence of paralytic poliomyelitis (one in two point four million) from the oral polio vaccine was considered unacceptable. Because of this, the inactivated poliomyelitis vaccine was developed.

Again, consider the risks associated with vaccination alongside the risks inherent with non-vaccination. Opting out of vaccination (without a genuine medical contraindication) is choosing the much higher risk of not vaccinating. There is no completely safe option, only one with a comparatively low risk – a low risk which is being reduced with every development which improves the safety of vaccines we use.

5) “I find the hostile attitude towards parents of vaccine injured children particularly astounding, as parents of children that have been killed or disabled have always been treated with an outpouring of compassion, understanding and empathy.” (‘‘Anti Vaxxer’ the new dirty word?‘, AVN blog post, 31 July 2012)

Meryl Dorey and a number of her colleagues identify as parents of vaccine-injured children, but I assert that framing criticism of the AVN as ‘attacks on parents of vaccine-injured children’ is a cheap and inaccurate attempt to demonise anybody who publicly disagrees with them.

I appreciate the diverse experiences of parents of children with special needs. I do have some insight into family life with children with disabilities, as I grew up alongside my younger brother, who has severe autism and developmental delay. I acknowledge that I cannot claim to empathise with parents of children with special needs though and I sincerely hope that when I speak with those who do have a child with a disability I am considerate and receptive.

I acknowledge that sadly, adverse reactions to vaccines do occur and that there are children and adults with genuine vaccine injuries. I do question whether the cases of allergies, asthma, autism and other conditions which the AVN’s members are attributing to vaccination have been confirmed as vaccine related by medical professionals, given that there is no credible evidence that vaccination causes any of the above conditions. However, I do not single out individuals publicly, nor do I make contact and question or criticise them directly.

Many parents of children with special needs – including parents who have gone through the tragedy of an adverse reaction to a vaccine – are still able to accept that vaccination is our safest and most effective option in preventing vaccine preventable diseases (and my hat is off to them). Of the few who choose to reject the overwhelming majority of credible evidence supporting vaccination, there is a sub set who then spread anti-vaccination misinformation and propaganda. They are joined with others who, for reasons other than something so personal as parenting a special needs child, believe that scientific consensus is not credible and vaccination is either unsafe, ineffective or both.

I would like to clearly state that my criticism of the AVN and my desire to hold them accountable is because they are an organisation which, if left unchallenged, spread misinformation which can cause doubt as to the safety and efficacy of vaccination, scaring parents away from having their children vaccinated. Unvaccinated children are at risk of serious illness and in some instances, death. The lower the vaccination rate, the greater the risk that an infant too young to be vaccinated, a child with a compromised immune system due to cancer treatment or organ transplant or others who cannot be vaccinated will be exposed to a vaccine preventable disease.

I do not attack parents of vaccine injured children, I criticise the actions of an organisation which, given legitimacy, put the most vulnerable members of our community at risk.

(See my previous post: “This is criticism, this is not abuse“)

At the time of posting, all links to the AVN’s website are inactive. From Meryl Dorey (full text here):

“Last night, ABC’s media watch put out a dreadful story calling for the media to stop reporting the other side of the vaccination issue. The result was that so many people came to the AVN’s website, the server was overloaded and the site taken down. We have upgraded our server and should be back online within 24 hours, but it is obvious that there is a real need and desire in the community for balanced information on this issue.”

Being inclined to consider two sides to every story, Ms Dorey, I would like to suggest that instead of jumping to the conclusion that your website being overloaded and collapsing was because “it is obvious that there is a real need and desire in the community for balanced information on this issue.”, you ruminate on whether perhaps part of that flood in website traffic was comprised of individuals wishing to see for themselves just how ‘baloney’-heavy the misinformation you’re espousing really is.

In lieu of the usual ‘Further Reading’ section to this rather opinion-heavy post, I thoroughly recommend viewing (or reading the transcript of) the Media Watch segment on WINNews Illawarra, the AVN and false balance in reporting which ran on ABC TV last night. Further background information to this story is provided in Reasonable Hank’s post “ABC News teaches WIN News a lesson in responsible public health broadcasting“.

An Open Letter to the AVN

Below is an open letter to members of the Australian Vaccination Network, an anti-vaccination group here in New South Wales. I posted it on their Facebook wall in mid-July 2012, as I had participated in an exchange of comments on one of their threads in which I stated that I was troubled by the AVN’s actions and expected to be banned for such, so I figured I had little to lose and may as well make an attempt to communicate something which had been playing on my mind. It was deleted and I have been banned from commenting on their page again.

I still feel that it is a worthy sentiment and wish for it to be in the public domain. It’s been noted that the similar questions can be asked of those who hold other beliefs incongruous with the current conclusions of the scientific majority – for example, those who deny the existence of anthropomorphic climate change or those who deny that human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is the cause of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS).

I do genuinely want to understand how it is that people are able to find such fallacies so convincing in the face of not only the evidence which states otherwise, but the dedication and integrity of those who study and work in the field. I suspect that my best opportunity to comprehend it is to read the work of those who have studied it, and I am, but I still wish to ask the questions below directly to those it applies to.

It’s a fairly emotive attempt at an appeal to reason, but I feel that that is appropriate for the message I was trying to convey.

a screencap, transcribed below

As I am facing the possibility of being banned from commenting and posting on this page after having stated my strong concern about the AVN in previous comments, I would like to take this opportunity to say my piece.

I genuinely feel saddened that some people evidently hold so little faith in humanity that they believe that there are these great cover-ups and malicious attempts to cause illness or hold back safe treatments which may cure of alleviate the suffering of the ailing. To believe that mainstream science and medicine are corrupt is to believe that a high percentage of scientists and medical professionals who have devoted themselves to advancing our understanding of the universe and/or improving the wellbeing of humankind are either naive or corruptible. Certainly some people can be misled, have an improper understanding of data and statistics (particularly laypeople), become dogmatic and abandon critical thought or be greedy or desperate enough to behave without conscience, but it must be a dreadful and sad world view to hold to believe that the majority of medical professionals and scientists (and the employees of the agencies who regulate them) behaved in this manner.

I don’t believe that you’re all awful people. I feel that you believe that you’re acting in the best interest of your families, your communities, the world at large. I just don’t understand why it is that you find what you’re reading and discussing to be so much more convincing and compelling than the possibility that the majority of scientists and medical professionals are ethical, well informed and trustworthy.

I’m pleased to have started blogging – thank you for reading and I hope that you’ll bear with me while I become accustomed to WordPress and make myself at home.